Designing BMW’s Future @ BMW Designworks

Oliver Heilmer and his colleagues in California are likely to have a profound effect on not only a vast array of consumer products and services going forward, but on how BMW Group products look and perform in the years to come

BMW Designworks has worked on a number of things during the past several years. Like yachts for Belgian company Zeydon... An expresso machine for Starbucks... A phone for ZTE... And a lot more. Which is to say that while they know cars, they know a lot more, too. Which is advantageous in an era when consumer electronics and other non-automotive products are having a major impact on the auto industry. 

The headquarters of the design consultancy is located in Newbury Park, California. As it is a BMW Group company it, not surprisingly, has a studio in Munich, Germany. And because this is the 21st century, its third studio is based in Shanghai.

Oliver Heilmer was named president of Designworks in August, 2016. Prior to that he’d headed BMW Automobiles Interior Design team; he got that position in 2013. He’s been with BMW since 2000, after receiving a master’s in Transportation Design from Fachhochscule für Gestaltung. The Munich native is now a resident of SoCal.

And, Heilmer says, Adrian van Hooydonk, Senior Vice President BMW Group Design, has positioned him as the head of Advanced Design for BMW. “The reason behind that,” he explains, “is because Designworks has always had the outside-in view.” BMW, of course, is diligently focused on cars and crossovers (and motorcycles).

But at Designworks, the fact that they’ve had assignments from other companies means that there is an entirely different perspective, one that could have implications on the main part of the BMW business. For example, Designworks personnel have worked on aircraft interiors. And if you think about your experience while riding on an airplane—at least being on a high-level carrier in a seat that isn’t in the middle or near the galley or something less pleasant—it is somewhat analogous to what could be the experience while being in an autonomous vehicle. Which is something that is certainly of great interest at BMW Automobiles.
 

Heilmer acknowledges, however, “Autonomous driving is not just a lot of opportunities—it is also a lot of questions.” And one of the activities that he is undertaking for both Designworks and BMW Automobiles is trying to codify and answer those questions. Given that his role at Designworks puts him in a place where it's “not just product design, but service design and user interaction, which is totally different from what I’ve done before,” the applicability to future vehicles makes all the more sense.

Heilmer says that “interior design is always more product design than exterior design is.” That is, he says that much of interior design is about the details: the design of disparate elements—from switches to seats to steering wheels, which are in and of themselves products—that must be harmoniously integrated. It is this attention to the individual elements and the holistic object is something that is becoming more important, especially as they work toward defining precisely what the automobile of the future—and it’s not a distant future, but “within the next 15 years” by Heilmer’s reckoning—is going to be.

2016 marked the centenary of BMW Group, so the company pursued a “VISON NEXT 100” for each of its brands—BMW, MINI, BMW Motorrad and Rolls-Royce—with designers and engineers helping create physical speculations of what the means of personal mobility will be like in the next 20 or 30 years.

For BMW Automobiles, Heilmer says, there will be a duality, one that emphasizes what BMW has always stood for, which is to be a driver’s vehicle—as in The Ultimate Driving Machine—while at the same time taking into account those times when the driver becomes a passenger.

Overall, Heilmer sees the changes that the automobile industry is in the midst of is not wholly unlike the situation at the start of the 20th century, when horses gave way to automobiles. It is not that horses are obsolete, that no one rides them, but the social purpose has changed. Enthusiasts, primarily, still ride horses, but that’s not the total means of personal transportation as it was, say, in 1900. Similarly, there could be a case where cars that are driven give way in large part to cars that are things that are ridden in. But there will still be enthusiasts. So on the one hand the challenge for Heilmer and his colleagues is to design vehicles that take into account autonomy and the ethos of what a BMW is. “We don’t want to be defined by the horse metaphor,” he says.

Going back to the individual elements that constitute a motor vehicle, Heilmer thinks that going forward, “I think what is important to us is that we be open—being less about designing every little part but creating a space that is specific to the brand.”

He uses upscale hotels as an analogy. “They have their own kind of basic setup design language, but within this design you’re going to find table lamps from Porta Romana and chairs from Vita—and it all works together. It is not a monoculture. You’re letting specific partners into the space.”

Again, this can be considered something of the outside-in approach, thinking across the landscape rather than just in a particular parking lot.

But in addition to a broader perspective, another thing that Heilmer brings to design is an understanding of other functions, and connections within those functions that can be beneficial to the realization of designs: “I know a lot about production. I can use the network that I’ve developed there. That’s important. When I am presenting things in Munich, I know what is feasible within the next six or seven years. I know all of the processes and the loops of development.”

And what is even more surprising is that Heilmer says he has an understanding of the role of purchasing in development. “We had a couple of workshops with suppliers and I realized how important it is to be involved in purchasing. It’s something important to get the right traction on a project—it’s not just presenting something and then that’s it.”

That said, he acknowledges that when it comes to advanced design, it is more about ideation than it is the proverbial nuts and bolts: “The approach we have for advanced design is not linked to production.”

But arguably, the approach they have for advanced design will make a tremendous difference for the future of BMW Group.